Memoires of a Dutiful Daughter is the first part of Simone De Beauvoir’s four volumes autobiography. In this book that was published in 1958, Simone speaks about her early life as a child born at the turn of the century (1908) till the time she was student in the Sorbonne – where she met her life time partner: French thinker and Noble prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre.
The book describes her early memories (starting from the tender age of three) living in a bourgeois family – by title only and not by wealth. Her father was a legal secretary who had a vast interest in literature and arts in general. While her mother was a house wife who shared the father’s interests in literature and in acting: they were both amateur stage actors. She was also a devout Catholic who brought up both daughters on her faith.
During their school years, the girls attend nun’s schools and at an early age Simone aspires to become a nun. However, as a teenager she has a change of heart and become an atheist till the day she dies. What’s amazing about these diaries is the detailed account that Simone gives about aspects of her life at different stages; thanks to the habit of keeping a diary that she’d taken up at a young age.
Simone’s childhood was a happy one as she was surrounded by a loving family who’d supported her two life passions: Reading and studying.
However, her struggle starts when she becomes a teenager and try to make sense of the world surrounding her. She becomes aware of the what she calls “the hypocrisy of the bourgeois class” where men lead double lives: A luminous one approved by society and a secret one that few knew about.
As for woman, they were treated as inferior beings and discouraged from continuing their further studies to become autonomous.
Moreover, families had to save and pay a large sum of dowries to secure good marriages for their daughters. At that time, women liberation movement had just started in France yet Simone could never identify with what she believed to be a birth right and refused to be called a feminist.
Instead, she joins movements ran by the communists that introduces French culture to working classes. Another conflict that she faces is her lack of faith, which people around her never understood nor appreciated.
The narrative reflects Simone’s high intelligence as she contemplates on many aspects of French life and culture post World War I. She was the youngest to pass the Sorbonne philosophy exam and the ninth woman to graduate from that specialisation, as it had recently opened to female students.
The last 20 pages of the book describes her encounter with fellow student Jean-Paul Sartre. The first time they were to meet, she sent her sister instead because their mutual friend wasn’t sure if she’d like him. But after she met him, she was really impressed and noted: “It was the first time in my life that I had felt intellectually inferior to anyone else.”
They were inseparable for fifty-one years till his death in 1980. All in all, the book is enjoyable and gives an insight to the making of one of the most important figures in early French feminist movement and existentialism. There are parts that could be difficult to follow, especially those that deal with her personal views on classic French literature and different philosophers. But what makes it memorable is the intimacy you feel reading her personal thoughts that are no different from what we think now a century later.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of The World According to Bahja. firstname.lastname@example.org